Will attack of Minneapolis trans woman be charged as a hate crime? What to know

A light rail station
Last week, a transgender woman in Minneapolis was violently attacked at the Lake Street light rail station. She is now in stable condition, but remains hospitalized.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

The violent attack of a transgender woman at a Minneapolis light rail station early last week prompted community outcry and renewed concerns for the safety of trans Minnesotans. 

As of Thursday evening, the victim was in stable condition but remained hospitalized, according to Metro Transit Police, which responded to the call. The victim suffered a broken rib, collapsed lung and internal cranial bleeding. MPR News has no information about her identity beyond her initials as written in the police report.

The officers’ report of the incident said the assault may have been driven by “anti-transgender bias,” but the two suspects were not immediately charged with anything related to a hate crime, instead just facing aggravated robbery and assault charges.

Residents, LGBTQ advocacy groups and state and elected officials have publicly expressed grief, distress and support for the victim. LGBTQ advocacy nonprofit OutFront Minnesota said their crisis line has seen a major influx of calls from queer and trans Minnesotans fearing for their safety and that of others.

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“Trans folks are feeling vulnerable within the Twin Cities, within Minnesota, within our country at large,” said OutFront executive director Kat Rohn. “There are just so many things coming at us and coming at our lives.”

Although Minnesota has been working to protect trans people, this attack came as more than half of U.S. states are considering or passing anti-LGBTQ legislation that often targets transgender people. And just over the weekend, speakers at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) leaned heavily on anti-trans rhetoric, with one calling for “transgenderism” to be “eradicated from public life entirely.” 

Every state has different laws, statutes and processes related to hate or bias-motivated crimes. Here’s a primer on what we have in Minnesota, as well as an explanation of other potential means of  justice for the victim and for trans communities in general. 

What are Minnesota’s laws regarding hate crimes?

Minnesota law doesn’t have a specific crime called a “hate crime,” but it does have statutes that allow for “sentencing enhancements” in crimes motivated by hate or bias. This is a common practice in other states and is usually what people mean when they refer to “hate crime laws.”

Prosecutors can add these sentencing enhancements to increase both the minimum and maximum sentences for crimes proven to be motivated by bias against certain identities. 

Those identity groups include a victim’s actual or perceived race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, disability, age or national origin. 

Minnesota’s sentencing guidelines say judges can go above the minimum sentence for a crime if “the offender intentionally selected the victim” wholly or partially because of their identity. And separately, a state statute increases the maximum sentence for assault by 25 percent if an assault was committed because of hate or bias. 

CAIR-MN urged legislators to add the increased penalty for bias-motivated assault in 2016, after a woman at an Applebee’s in Coon Rapids struck another woman with a beer mug for speaking Swahili. 

A transit police squad parked outside a transit station
A Transit Police squad car parks outside the Lake Street light rail station on Monday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Is it possible that the suspects in this case could be charged with a hate crime?

Yes, it is possible, according to Hennepin County Attorney Mary Moriarty, whose office is prosecuting the case. But this will only happen if prosecutors are able to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the attack was motivated by hate or bias.

“Further investigation is ongoing to see if we can develop those facts that will allow us to prove what the motivation was here,” Moriarty told MPR News on Monday.

How can prosecutors prove a motive of hate or bias?

“You can prove that in a number of ways,” said Moriarty. 

Examples of evidence could be any conversation before the assault happened, any comments made during the assault or any statements that suspects made that might pertain to the assault. Moriarty said much of the attack was caught on video, which could also aid in finding evidence.

Though the defense has the legal right to cross-examine a victim, Moriarty said her office is seeing whether gathering the evidence could be done without forcing the victim to testify.

“We actively involve any victim and talk to them about what their wishes are,” she said.

Is gender identity considered in bias-motivated crimes?

Gender identity is currently not explicitly one of the categories in the bias crime statute or sentencing guideline, but a bill currently moving through the Legislature would add gender, gender identity or gender expression to the list, if passed.

Moriarty said this specification would be helpful because as it stands, crimes against transgender and nonbinary people can be argued on the basis of sex, but the defense can argue about the definition of “sex” to weaken the prosecution’s argument. 

“If the Legislature put ‘gender identity’ in there, then there would be no question that that was included — no real room for debate,” she said. 

A woman with short grey hair poses for a photo
County Attorney Mary Moriarty sits for a photo in the Hennepin County Government Center in Minneapolis on Jan. 11.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

What are the challenges in trying cases like these?

Bias-motivated crimes can be more difficult to charge because prosecutors not only have to prove that the assault happened, but also why it happened, which is inherently more complicated. Because of that, the sentencing enhancements are rarely pursued, “possibly because it can be easier to move other charges,” Moriarty said.

For example, in 2016, the Legislature passed an increased penalty for felony assault motivated by bias. As of October 2022, the enhanced charge had been filed fewer than two dozen times statewide, according to data from the Minnesota court system.

Moriarty also said this type of crime presents unique challenges because of the way society has treated trans people. A victim may not want to speak publicly about what happened to them because of a culture of transphobia and potential consequences from doing so. 

“It can be very intimidating and traumatizing to have to testify at trial, and I think it probably is even more difficult if you are the victim of an assault that was motivated by bias,” she said.

What else could be done for justice for this victim?

Justice can mean a lot of different things to different people, depending on their values and beliefs — especially those in communities who have historically been discriminated against by law enforcement or mistreated in the criminal justice system. 

Rohn of OutFront Minnesota said it’s important that victims are the ones to name what justice looks like for themselves. 

“I won’t speak for what justice looks like for this particular victim,” Rohn said, but noted that their organization focuses on supporting victims more than seeking criminal charges.

“We actually tend not to be as eager to pursue bias crime sentencing enhancement, primarily because we both see it as a tool that’s not necessarily actually effective at preventing future violence within community, but also because we know that the sentencing enhancements are more typically falling on members of our community who are at the intersection of multiple marginalized identities,” Rohn said. “While it can be a useful tool for some folks in seeking justice, we see incarceration as not being the solution to public safety.”

Moriarty shared a similar sentiment — that it is not possible to arrest or prosecute our way out of violence and discrimination. She said public transportation in particular needs community outreach workers to be a presence and connect with people who might be struggling. 

Others have called for more police at light rail stations. Metro Transit is authorized to have 171 full-time officers but only has 110, as it has struggled to recruit and retain officers, according to the Star Tribune.

But some LGBTQ advocates are against ideas to increase police presence, due to law enforcement’s history of harassing and targeting marginalized communities including LGBTQ people. 

“I know for our communities more broadly, what justice looks like is change,” Rohn said. “It’s about creating equity and addressing violence, and really committing ourselves to making things better so that fewer of these incidents will happen.”

A light rail station lower tower
The Lake Street light rail station is pictured on Monday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

How can I support the victim?

The victim’s identity is not public information at this point. 

Moriarty said she’s aware of the community’s eagerness to provide support to the victim, and is sharing that with the victim directly. Ultimately, though, it’s up to the victim to decide whether that’s something she’s interested in engaging with. 

“A lot of things can happen to an assault victim where having some kind of services, having access to financial help can really help them,” Moriarty said. “I don’t know the circumstances in this case, but just generally I think we could do a lot better helping victims work through assaults and recover financially and in other respects.”

Moriarty invites community members to call her office’s citizen information line with offerings of assistance for the victim. That number is 612-348-2146. The voicemail box is checked regularly, and Moriarty said any information would be passed along to the victim.

How can I support transgender Minnesotans in the wake of this crime? 

Individual support looks different for everyone.

To show support for the greater community, Rohn said, “it’s stepping up, being good allies, speaking out and supporting trans folks vocally.” 

She says people can push for long-term change, whether that’s pushing for legislation, change to policies at a workplace or conversations in schools or places of worship. 

“That is the work that needs to happen for our trans community to feel safer and more secure, here within the Twin Cities, in Minnesota and beyond,” they said. 

OutFront also has a help line staffed by trained LGBTQ advocates for peer-to-peer support and for help with connecting to resources (that number is 800-800-0350).

“The help line is here all the time for folks as a resource, but particularly when we have events like this or things like Club Q, we see an uptick in calls of community members who, whether they're directly affected or indirectly affected by the events, are feeling vulnerable and looking for support,” Rohn said.

OutFront is also considering partnering with other organizations to offer self defense classes or bystander intervention classes. The organization is holding off on any immediate community gatherings related to the attack, out of respect for the victim and wanting her consent.

Rohn said OutFront does expect to hold a gathering at the state Capitol tied to Trans Day of Visibility coming up at the end of the month, not in connection to this tragic event, but undoubtedly with a greater urgency because of it.

For LGBTQ people seeking crisis support:

Trans Lifeline: 877-565-8860

The Trevor Project: 1-866-488-7386, or text 678-678

LGBT National Hotline: 888-843-4564